General — 08 July 2017
Environmentalists follow-up on oil spill in Guatemala

SARSTOON, Toledo, Thurs. July 6, 2017–The negative effects of an oil spill was what sent environmental activists and the media on a 2-hour boat trip from Punta Gorda Town to the Cadenas Belize Defence Force outpost area along the Sarstoon River on Wednesday.

As KREM News has been reporting, this past weekend there was an oil spill not in Belize’s territorial waters, but rather, inland in Guatemala at the Gracias a Dios river. The concern was that since the said river runs into the Chocon River, the Sarstoon was also at risk because the Chocon empties into it.

The Belize Coalition to Save Our Natural Heritage, Wil Maheia of the Belize Territorial Volunteers and SATIIM coordinated the mission.

After the 2-hour boat ride under—at times—heavy rainfall, there was no visible sign of petroleum in the waters.

SATIIM Executive Director, Froyla Tzalam, said that a lot of tankers traverse the highways and the question for them is mitigation.

“What do we do if a tanker overturns and spills into our waterways?” Tzalam questioned, while raising further questions about what mitigation plan Belize has in place to minimize impacts.

Maheia said that it was good for them to go to the Sarstoon and see that there is no oil over the Belize side.

If it was going to reach the Belize side, it would have been there by now, he said.

“We have not seen any on the Belize side,” said Maheia.

However, he said that this is “a wake-up oil for us,” and Belize needs some kind of mitigation should an accident take place, for example, in the Gulf of Honduras.

At Modesto Mendez, one of the nearest Guatemalan communities believed to be only a 30-minute bus ride from where the spill happened, we spoke with Aurelia Caal, a resident who shared their concerns.

She stated: “It is worrying because it is damaging to the water and the fishes. What they need to have is more precaution while driving so the oil does not end up in the river.”

She told us that some 7 communities depend on the waterway in the area where the spill occurred.

While the Belizean contingent did not observe any remnants of an oil spill affecting Belize’s waters, Leonor Sagastume, a Guatemalan fisherman who frequently traverses the Sarstoon, told us that the oil had already passed through our waters on Monday and said that Guatemalan residents have been approached about possible compensation by a private oil company, Perenco, given that the majority of people in the area are fishermen.

Sagastume said that on the very day when the oil tanker ran off the road and fell into the Gracias a Dios river, some fishes were already dying off. Furthermore, on the very day of the spill, if you were to put your hand in the water, you’d bring up oil.

Villagers from Arenales, he said, pump water out of the river and were unable to do so up to a couple or so days after the spill.

Oceana says it will continue to monitor the situation and took samples of the water for testing while reminding of the importance of finalizing Belize’s oil plan.

Alyssa Carnegie, Communications Director for Oceana in Belize, said that Government was undergoing a review, but she is not sure where that is at this point.

Oceana submitted draft language; Oceana’s position remains the same and it will keep advocating for policy and legislation that would help to ensure transparency when it comes to decisions like offshore oil, where the people of Belize can get an active opportunity to make their voices heard on this issue. According to Carnegie, the Government’s response would not kick in until 36 hours and so the impact would be significant.

On a Belize-Guatemala note, a Guatemalan naval vessel trailed the Belize vessel starting just a few minutes into our trip. It caught up with our boat and one of the five officers took photographs before turning back.

(Story courtesy KREM News)

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